Saturday, May 2, 2015

Progressive Christianity: What's the Bible?

So, what's the Bible? How are we to understand it? And how do we apply it to life? It's these kinds of questions that Rachel Held Evans raises in 'Sword Drills', chapter 17 in her book Faith Unraveled. As in the other chapters, she uses her own experiences to present her concerns and ideas in response to those questions. 

A key turning point in her moving away from her church's answers to those questions occurred when she was a counselor at 'apologetics camp'. She recounts what happened after a lecture on dating and marriage.

Later that night, one of the girls nervously confessed that she had invited a boy to prom, thereby inadvertently usurping his God-ordained leadership role in their relationship. Another, a soft-spoken, pretty red-haired girl with an easy demeanor, buried her head in hands, ashamed of having kissed a boy. Their responses embodied all that I felt as a young woman trying to find my way in the conservative religious culture — the shame, the confusion, the sense that my sexuality and ambition were liabilities in my relationship with men and with God.

She goes on to say that if she could go back she would explain that there isn't a biblical view of things like dating and marriage.

I would tell them that the idea of a single, comprehensive biblical worldview to which all Christians can agree is a myth… 

She later explains.

In truth, the Bible represents a cacophony of voices. It is a text teeming with conflict and contrast, brimming with paradox, held together by creative tension.

Rachel is quite clear, however, that thinking about the Bible in this way

… doesn’t diminish the beauty and power of the Bible but rather enhances it and gives Christians something to talk about.

She goes on to say,
The Bible is by far the most fascinating, beautiful, challenging, and frustrating work of literature I’ve ever encountered. Whenever I struggle with questions about my faith, it serves as both a comfort and an agitator, both the anchor and the storm. One day it inspires confidence, the next day doubt. For every question it answers, a new one surfaces. For every solution I think I’ve found, a new problem will emerge. The Bible has been, and probably always will be, a relentless, magnetic force that both drives me away from my faith and continuously calls me home. Nothing makes me crazier or gives me more hope than the eclectic collection of sixty-six books that begins with Genesis and finishes with Revelation. It’s difficult to read a word of it without being changed.

I understand 'fascinating, beautiful, challenging, and frustrating'. There have been those times when I also found myself saying something like, 'What in the world is going on here?', as I read something in the Scriptures. I agree with Rachel that all of those adjectives apply. But I don't come to the same conclusions that she does. Why?

There is a place where people like Rachel and me come upon a fork in the road. There, we see this question that needs to be answered. The question here isn't about the relationship between women and men or about non-violence or about any of the sort of questions that deal with how to apply the Bible to some aspect of life. The question here is more foundational. It's simply this: What is the Bible?

People who take the right fork conclude that the words that those ancient people wrote, words the ultimately became what we call the Bible, are the exact words that God wanted written. Each word helps to express some truth that He wanted to reveal.

People who take the left fork conclude that only some of the words that ended up in the Bible are the words that God wanted written. There are lots of other words that aren't from Him. They aren't truth from Him.

And that's why, just to take one example, some Christians say one thing about relationships between men and women and other Christians say something different.

Understanding the Bible is kind of like putting together one of those jigsaw puzzles that has a bazillion pieces. Fitting all the pieces together will take more than one lifetime. Actually it will take many lifetimes to put it all together.

Right fork people work at it assured that all the pieces are in the box and that only the right pieces are in the box. So, it's one piece, and then another, and then another, all fitting together. There are, of course, those times when you think two pieces go together and try to fit them with each other. But after a bit, you realize that they really don't fit. There are, sadly, those who are so convinced that those two pieces go together that they take a hammer to them to make sure they go together. At some point, someone else comes along, sees the mistake, and separates the two pieces. And on we go until, one day, all the pieces fit together. So, finishing the puzzle - understanding the Bible, understanding what God has revealed about all sorts of things - will take generations. But it will happen. The puzzle will be completed.

Left fork people have a different task. They know that they have a puzzle to put together, and that the puzzle has a bazillion pieces. But some of the pieces in the box don't belong to this puzzle. And it might even be that there are some pieces that are missing. And that, I think you will agree, will make putting that puzzle together, understanding what God has revealed, much more difficult. In fact, it might be impossible to do. Now, there are left fork people who know this. They just figure that's the way it is and they are simply going to try their best.

With all of this in mind, I think that we can come to a conclusion about something. What we have here are two very different kinds of ideas about Christian living. And that's because these are two very different kinds of ideas about what it means to know God's revelation about Himself and everything else. For right fork people, it's all in the Book. So, they work at fitting pieces together to discover what God has to say about how we are to live. Left fork people don't say that it's all in the Book. Some of it is. But the rest is somewhere else. And figuring out which puzzle pieces actually belong - well, I'm not sure how someone will do that and get it right. Anyway, after a couple of generations we're surely going to have two very different ideas of what Christian living is supposed to look like, two very different looking, partially-complete puzzles.

So, how does someone decide which fork to take? It seems to me that the answer to that is the same answer to so many of these important questions. What does Jesus think about it? Or to say that differently, did He take the right fork or the left? Based on what He said - those pieces of the puzzle that we call the Gospels, pieces that I think really are a part of the puzzle since they're in the Bible - it seems clear to me that Jesus chose the right fork. All the words in the Bible are God's words. This explains why I continually choose the right fork, challenges and frustrations notwithstanding. Now, if I'm wrong on this it will make a huge difference in how I understand Christian living. But if I'm right …